The provinces of Alberta and British Columbia share the Canadian Rockies, famous for their rugged peaks and the valleys that separate them. Last summer my family travelled around the Rockies and here is our itinerary.
The road trip took us from Banff to Lake Louise to Jasper along the Bow Valley and Icefield Parkways—about the best road trip in the world—over the Robson Pass, past the highest mountain in the Rockies, and down along Lake Okanagan where the climate is dry and sunny. At Osoyoos, a desert town near the American border, we took Hwy 3 east to the Kootenay Rockies region that stretches from the Okanagan Valley to the Alberta border. Then over the Crowsnest Pass to where the mountains and the prairies meet, dipping down to Waterton Lakes National Park before returning to Calgary.
Background to this road trip: I first visited the Canadian Rockies during my ‘gap’ year between high school and university, working as a waitress at Jasper Park Lodge. Many years later my son, Andrew, and daughter, Jessica, did the same westward journey, not to Jasper but to Banff, he to work in security at the Banff Springs Hotel and she in banquets at the Rimrock Resort Hotel.
Fast forward a few more years and Andrew trades in his job as a Bay Street lawyer for one with a firm in Calgary so that he and his family can be close to the mountains. We all travel extensively in the area. Jessica marries Ian who has never travelled in the Rockies so a road trip is in order. After much discussion this is the route we took–4 adults, 2 kids, 1 infant and a nana (that’s me).
Calgary is about 150 km east of the Rockies and you can see the peaks from there, which is a bit of tease. Jessica, Ian and the baby went on ahead, spending the night in luxurious splendor at the Banff Springs Hotel in Banff National Park.
Most of Banff National Park, the oldest park in Canada, is untouched wilderness with trails running through it. The town of Banff, though, is a lively sort of place in a gorgeous setting. There is lots to see and do here: bathing in the thermal waters at the Upper Hot Springs Pool, biking the 26 km Banff Legacy Trail, canoeing around Johnson or Vermilion Lakes, taking in a performance at the Banff Centre, getting a little smarter at the Whyte Museum, taking a gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain, to name a few.
The 48 km Bow Valley Parkway takes you from Banff to Lake Louise. It offers superb views and opportunities for wildlife sightings.
More than 100 years ago, a man named Thomas Wilson, while working on the Canadian Pacific railway near Kicking Horse Pass, heard the sound of avalanches. He looked around and came upon an emerald lake backed by the Victoria Glacier. “As God is my judge”, he exclaimed, “I never in all my explorations saw such a matchless scene”. He must have told his bosses because before long the Canadian Pacific Railway built a one-story log cabin by that lake. That was 1890. The railway hired professional Swiss mountain guides, promoted the hotel as a place for the “outdoor adventurer and alpinist”, and Lake Louise soon had the reputation as the birthplace of Canadian mountaineering. The hotel is no longer simple—it looks like a castle—but the lake and its backdrop haven’t changed.
There are two very popular trails here. One is up to the mountain teahouse and the other is around Moraine Lake in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. There are less crowded and still pristine options such as the Lake Annette Trail in the Paradise Valley region that takes you right under the north face of Mount Temple and the trail to Bow Glacier Falls on the edge of the Wapta Icefield.
The road from the Parkway to Chateau Lake Louise can be very crowded and the parking lot at the Chateau a little overwhelming. If you decide to bypass Lake Louise do stop at the Samson Mall for gas (and some tasty takeout food) and the display at the Information Centre.
The Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93N) connects Lake Louise and Jasper. It’s the ultimate road trip. Think mountain passes, alpine tundra, ice fields, and glacier-fed lakes. On our trip last summer we saw a grizzly bear, two black bears, many elk and deer, a bighorn sheep, and a coyote, all up close. Wow. You have to drive carefully because the animals are not fenced out so all creatures share the road.
We stopped along the Icefields Parkway to hike up the Parker Ridge Trail. The trailhead is 9 km south of the Icefield Information Centre and about halfway between Lake Louise (119 km) and Jasper (113 km). Andrew and his family had hiked it the year before and thought it would suit the group. It is rated as an easy hike (albeit requiring some effort), and takes 2.5 hours round trip. At the top you have an exceptional view of the Saskatchewan Glacier flowing out from the Columbia Icefield.
Shortly afterwards is the Columbia Icefield, one of the largest masses of glacial ice outside the Arctic Circle. It feeds several large glaciers, including the Athabasca, the Columbia and the Saskatchewan. Some of the highest mountains in the Canadian Rockies (Athabasca, Columbia, Snow Dome) are around you. You’ll notice the chill in the air as soon as you get out of your car.
Jasper National Park is called the ‘gentle giant of the Rockies’ and we spent three nights there. Here’s what we did:
We visited downtown Jasper, first going to the historic information centre made of cobblestone and timber that’s on the main street. Across from it is the railway station: The earliest visitors to the park arrived by train (as did I on my first trip). In front of the station is a 12-metre tall Two Brothers Totem Pole, a Jasper landmark. The figures carved in the pole are (from the top), a Haida Gwaii brother, a raven, a niece, a mountain goat, another brother and at the bottom a grizzly bear holding a dragonfly in its claws. The original totem pole was put here in 1915. We stopped for lunch (and for some of us, a beer) at the Jasper Brewing Company.
Took the Jasper Tramway up the steep northern face of Whistlers Mountain. When you get off at the top you have the most spectacular view of mountains (even of Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Rockies) and of blue glacier-fed lakes. We would have hiked from where the tramway stops to the summit but a grizzly bear was in the area and we were advised to take a pass.
Went rafting on the Athabasca River, which has class 2 rapids (a mix of splashy rapids and calm waters). Kids as young as 6 years can go. You start at the base of the Athabasca Falls (one of the most powerful in the mountain parks) and the canyon scenery is stunning. Book well in advance (on-line) because space is limited.
Walked along the Path of the Glacier Trail that goes close to the north face of Mt. Edith Cavell, the highest mountain in the area with peaks of 3,300m. Andrew said this hike would give us the greatest satisfaction for the least amount of effort and he was right! After a very reasonable walk you come upon retreating glaciers and a melt-water pond filled with small icebergs. It’s the kind of hike the whole family can enjoy.
Spent an afternoon at Miette Hotsprings, 61 km from Jasper and reached by taking a winding mountain road in the Fiddle Valley. These are the hottest mineral springs in the Canadians Rockies. Local outfitters started clearing the trail up to here in 1923 and the first tourists were mostly well-to-do easterners from Canada, the United States and Europe. The water temperature is kept between 37ºC and 40ºC or 98ºF and 104ºF.
Cooked steaks, roasted marshmallows, played board games, and tried not to disturb the elk at our rustic log cabin just outside the town.
If you’re a golfer and into having a splurge, the setting of Jasper Park Lodge‘s golf course is spectacular.
From Jasper we took Hwy 16 over the Robson Pass to Mount Robson Provincial Park in British Columbia. We made a stop at the very interesting Information Centre at the foot of Mount Robson, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. Last summer Andrew and his young son hiked the Berg Lake Trail at Mt. Robson, one of the most scenic trails in Canada.
We left the Rockies for a while, driving down to the Okanagan Valley, known for its lakes, dry climate and wineries. What a change!
We spent a couple of nights in a condo overlooking Lake Okanagan, spending time along Kelowna’s waterfront, biking along the historic Kettle Valley Railway, and going on a wine tour or two. We even managed a wonderful lunch at one of the wineries, kids and all.
From there we headed for Nelson, a town that is halfway between Vancouver and Calgary, nestled in the Selkirk Mountains in the southern interior of BC. This is West Kootenay, a mecca of lakes, rivers and mountains and one of the few temperate rainforests in the world because of the high Purcell Mountains to the east of it. Surprisingly, this is not a major tourist route and the area is quite unspoiled.
Silver was discovered in Nelson in 1886 and two railways passed through it. The silver rush ended but the heritage buildings were left behind. Many American draft dodgers from the Vietnam War settled here and had a significant impact on the town’s culture.
Nelson is known for its artists, marijuana production, organic farms, hot springs, and unusual bylaws (no dogs, no hacky sack, no skateboarding, rollerblading and unauthorized music on its main strip). Our only regret was that we didn’t have enough time in this very charming place.
From Nelson we took Hwy 3A over to Balfour on the west side of Kootenay Lake where we took the longest free ferry in the world (the crossing, which is glorious, takes 35 minutes). From Crawford Bay we drove south to Creston, which hugs the US border, and got onto Hwy 3 (Crowsnest Highway) east.
Fernie is an adventure destination and one of the best ski resorts in North America. It’s in the glacial Elk Valley of the East Kootenay region, with mountains all around (Mount Fernie, Mount Klauer, The Three Sisters, Mount Proctor, Mount Hosmer, Fernie Ridge, Morrissey Ridge, Castle Mountain, and Lizard Range). We checked out the area for future holiday rentals.
Fernie is on the southernmost transportation corridor that crosses the Rockies, this one through Crowsnest Pass. The Crowsnest Pass area is rich in coal deposits and as you enter Alberta you pass the town of Frank where, in 1903, 82 million tonnes of rock fell from the summit of Turtle Mountain into the Crowsnest River valley and in a mere 90 seconds killed at least 90 people—Canada’s deadliest rockslide. All the mines are now closed and you can stop at the information centre and learn about this horrible tragedy and the mining history.
Before we knew it, we were leaving the majestic Rockies and entering the rolling prairies, ‘Big Sky Country’. Instead of heading north to Calgary we went south to Waterton Lakes National Park, also part of the Rockies. It’s the narrowest point in the Rocky Mountain chain. Waterton Lakes National Park and Glacier National Park in the state of Montana together form the International Peace Park. Aside from counting bears, you can take a cruise on Emerald Bay, hike to Crypt Lake and walk around Red Rock Canyon. If you have a extra day (and a passport), cross over to Glacier National Park and drive the Going-to-the-sun Road, which twists and turns and hugs the cliffs and considered an engineering landmark.
On your way back to Calgary, 264 km (159 mi) from Waterton Lakes, consider stopping at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump where for nearly 6,000 years the native people hunted buffalo by enticing them to jump off a steep cliff to their death. The jump is where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains and the drop-off slightly hidden. This is one of the most important hunting sites ever identified and certainly worth a visit.
There you go, our summer circuit around the Canadian Rockies. Reserve your overnight stays well in advance. You will often be in bear country so be informed. Weather conditions can change suddenly so be prepared. Fill the gas tank whenever you can. Get a park permit. Have a great time!
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Riding the buses™
© Riding the buses™ 2015